Alumna Stefanie Carmichael works for the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (all photos courtesy Stefanie Carmichael)

Fighting Ebola in West Africa: alumna Stefanie Carmichael

"When I was called to join the Ebola response, I couldn’t say no"

Reactions to the ongoing Ebola crisis in West Africa have been varied – from cancelled flights to highly-publicized quarantines to heroic efforts by nurses and doctors to treat the afflicted. Many people are trying to help out however they can, including Stefanie Carmichael, a U of T alumna now working for the United Nations.

Carmichael recently left a communications position at U.N. headquarters in New York to return to Africa, where she’s working with an Ebola response team. Writer Terry Lavender interviewed her by email about her new role.

What is your role in Ghana? 
I work as a public information officer with the United Nations Mission for Ebola Emergency Response (UNMEER). We are a small team that helps get the word out about what all of the Ebola Response partners – UN and other – are doing to stop the outbreak. We try to both help raise awareness about the situation, and also keep up the momentum and public support for all of our partners, so that they have the resources they need to keep up the fight.

How long will you be in Ghana?
UNMEER was created due to the urgent need for fast action, but we don’t plan on being here long. As soon as the outbreak is under control, all of us at UNMEER will pack up and go. That’s not to say the work will be over – there is going to be a long recovery process after everything these countries have been through – but the emergency needs will have been met. 

What are conditions like there?
Ghana is actually a nice change from some of the other places I’ve lived in, like Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where we were under curfew and sometimes couldn’t leave our compounds. We don’t need armoured cars in Ghana. You can walk in the streets here and not feel threatened. The people here – and throughout West Africa – are amazing and it doesn’t take long before you start to feel at home. 

Why did you go to Ghana to fight Ebola?
I had been living in Africa for almost eight years and thought it would be nice to be closer to my family in Toronto again, so I accepted a short-term position in New York this summer. But when I was called to join the Ebola response, I couldn’t say no. Especially as I used to work for the UN Mission in Liberia (UNMIL), the issue and the people it was affecting were very close to my heart. My family and my team in New York understood that I had to go.

What did you study at U of T?
I did my honours bachelor of arts at U of T from September 2000 to June 2004. My majors were political science and African studies. I went on to do my master's in international development studies in Halifax, but U of T is in my blood – my mom, Annamarie Castrilli, is a former chair of the Governing Council of U of T and my father, brother and sister all went to St. Mike’s, too.

Did U of T help prepare you for your current career?
In my second year, I was living on campus with some students from Tanzania. They kept telling me such amazing stories about their country that over Christmas break I decided to go visit. I was 19 and my parents thought I was nuts – I think they even called the RCMP when they didn’t hear from me for the first few days – but it was the best experience. I came back, added a major in African studies to my program, started volunteering with NGOs all over the place, even started studying Swahili at New College, and never looked back. I really do owe my career to the diversity of U of T and those international students that I used to live with. 

Any other U of T alumni helping out with the current mission?
So far, I’ve met one U of T alum, Noah Sempiira, who also works with UNMEER doing information management in Sierra Leone. He’s in the epicentre of the Ebola outbreak right now and helping with things like contact tracing to make sure we contain the virus as fast as we can. 

Is it important for people in the West to help with the fight against Ebola? What can we do?
We’ve already seen Ebola spread to other countries, including the U.S., and the chances of more countries, including Canada, to see some cases is not unlikely given air travel these days.

But even if Canada wasn’t at risk, even if it was somehow guaranteed that Ebola would never leave this continent, I think we have a responsibility as fellow human beings to care. It’s cliché but it’s why I do what I do. And the great thing is that caring doesn’t even have to take much. Sure, people can volunteer as healthcare workers or donate money to any of the Ebola response partners, but it could also be as simple as sending message of thanks to people on the frontlines, or writing to Prime Minister Harper to say you support Canada’s involvement in the response efforts.  All of those little things will add up and help us end this thing faster. Plus, I like when Canada steps up because then I get to brag a little over here!


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